Everyone has a story of Christmas. The original story is universal. It’s there to be believed or not believed. It’s up to you and what you think. I have many Christmas stories. I could give you them all year by year but there would be a sense of deja vu. Almost every time the day would end with some kind of grovelling on all fours after a day of merry roistery. The subsequent night’s sleep could only be described as a power nap between sessions of alcoholic abuse.
But in those days I was invincible. I had a feverish appetite for sitting with friends and making holes in the drinks cabinet. This year’s holiday has been very different. I’m now the king of the train. The train is my friend and I rejoice in its power. The very build up to a long train journey sends a tingle up the spine. I now travel in a chair. Tied to the chair is my temporary world. Two bags and a man bag carry my world by means of Velcro straps. Nothing argues with these straps and their limpet-like grip.
It was a cold day. There was an icy wind under a blanket of grey. But the grey didn’t matter. It was a train journey.
My first train journey was memorable. We all went to Southport for the day. It was an electric train. In the sixties, I thought they were cooler than steam trains. The first stop from Exchange Street Station was called Sandhills. “Can we get off here?” I asked. “It’s got sand hills.” I’ve learnt since that Sandhills is predominantly light industry and docks. I still think it’s silly name.
It was a hot day and the train was crowded with like minded families. Children were bored and baying for attention. I stared at my parents sitting in stony faced silence whilst they secretly prayed for the journey to end. My two brothers and I remained silent. I’ve always been happy just to sit and watch. Southport beach was amazing.
I couldn’t see the sea. The tide went out for miles. I loved the feel of the grainy soft dry sand as it ran through my open fingers. I put as much as I could into my pockets. On the way back the gentle cadence of the rocking carriage weaved its soporific charm as I rolled into a deep sleep. The next thing I knew was the sound of the old 92 bus as it screamed down the fast bit of Longmoor Lane.
Last Thursday was a smooth journey. Apart from the taxi between Charing Cross and Euston. The cabby was an old boy of the old school. While I went up the short sharp ramp, he gripped the back of my chair to ensure a safe transition. But the chair was in turbo. His valiant efforts to stop me from falling backwards pressed my neck forward into a position only a contortionist would voluntarily assume. The poor fellow was mortified. I’d wrenched my neck but I wasn’t going to tell him that. It was an accident and accidents are opportunities for learning. Next time I’ll check my wheelchair setting. We might live in a claims and blames culture but I’m giving it a miss in this lifetime. In that respect I’m old school too.
Euston was a forest of bottoms and legs with the usual suitcase minefield.
Oh the temptation just to shout excuse me and charge through those multi-coloured plastic wheeled boxes. I could scatter them like nine-pins before shifting responsibility onto my faulty chair or my faulty brain. It was like the start of the Grand National. Everyone was waiting, eyes trained on the board, waiting for the platform number. I couldn’t actually look at the board due to a tender neck. I just waiting.
Then the shout came up: “Platform two,” they bellowed before setting off on the rampant charge to the elegant slimline pendelino, waiting in powerful majesty at the assigned spot.
I raced along the undulating platform to coach B. The man put the ramp out and my little chair scampered up its ribbed escarpment. No stopping-all in one beautiful smooth gesture. “Cheers mate,” went my passing response. And there was my space. All ready.
The rest of the train was nose to tail. I took out my paper and that was it. Liverpool came within the scheduled two hours and twelve minutes. A nice stewardess offered to bring me some tea. Virgin tea is good tea. She didn’t even charge me for it. The end brought me back into the cold winter wind of Liverpool. I’d left my little cosy cocoon to face the cold concrete of Lime Street.
When I was a child, Lime Street used to scare me. It was a short cut between T.J. Hughes. and Lewis’s. I didn’t like the dark and the noise. In my little eight year old eyes it was dangerous. Cars and vans were all over the place. And they were noisy. My mum, as ever was very matter of fact and assured me that no car or van was going to run me over. I was still uneasy.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the journey was a final return to the Wirral Loop Line. It reminded me of the many times I’d stood on its hard wind swept platform.
The draught was always freezing. One year, just a few days before Christmas, I was awaiting the clattering mess of steel and plastic we called a train. A whole family turned up on their way to Birkenhead market. Why a grandmother in her slippers, her two daughters (smoking like chimneys), the reluctant teenager who pouted for England and her two pre-school sisters would want to go to a smaller market than was on offer in Liverpool beats me. But there they were chatting away between drags, scowls and matriarchal pessimism. One of the little girls went trotting down the platform to look along the blackness of the tunnel while it spewed out its cruel icy breath. The mother noticed and paused from her intense chatter and smoking. I wondered what name was to be screamed along the station. I was not disappointed: “SABRINA” came the cry. I laughed. In fact I laughed uncontrollably. They all turned to me. I stopped.
But last Thursday, I explained to the helpful man on the platform that I was lacking a ticket: “Oh just tell them at the other end,” he said, unperturbed by my oversight. The train itself brought it all back. I sneaked a look through every portal, desperately trying to recall the days when I would bounce through the station on some important mission or other. There were days when I had stood there with my mates after a session at Yates’ Wine Lodge. We’d be gearing up to hit the heady heights of New Brighton. There would be somersaults and high jinx on the way. The evening would be set fair. Oblivion awaited.
The loop line was built in the seventies. Previously the underground stations were whopping great cavernous affairs.
The roof was a vaulted oppressive structure like a cathedral crypt. But the building of the line had made the stations more compact. It appealed to my tidy mind. Apart from James Street.
That was still open, dark and mysterious. When I worked in Burton’s the staff room was in the basement. The trains passed below us with an ominous rumble. I thought of all that space and darkness. It held me in awe. So did James Street.
I remembered the pub above. The Mona. I loved that pub. It was our chosen post-match boozer. It was lively and intriguing. We always found some shady characters. At Hamilton Square the man with the ramp showed me the way out. “Where can I pay?” I asked hopefully. “Oh your here now, it doesn’t matter,” came the response. I emerged into the dazzling low sun of a Birkenhead winter.
It felt cold and warm at the same time. The taxi driver was hilarious and for a few minutes I wondered why I’d chosen to live in the fat under belly of the South East. Well that’s how it goes. You follow your dreams but you remember your roots.
“That just cannot be so,” Mr Worthington interrupted. “The rain is given to us for our harvest and our ale.” I was desperately trying to think of something else to say when the first rumble of thunder gave me new impetus.
“Ah did you hear that? Now that’s thunder. That’s caused by increasing pressure and the expansion of air around-” A flash of lightning flickered brightly across their faces. “Lightning.” The timing could not have been better. “Lightning is caused by lots of tiny bits of ice rubbing together to make a charge.” The mumbled disgust of Mrs Abernathy and Mr Kenwood stopped. Now they were definitely listening to me! The thunder rumbled again. Mrs Abernathy’s shoulders and arms tightened.
“I am from another time.” I could sense surprise. I wanted to surprise them even more:
“I am from around here but not how you know it. I know so many things.” Mr Worthington looked taken aback. He had just declared me useless for not speaking Latin. Another flash of lightning lit up the grey walls. “Lightning is electricity and we will learn to make it and control it. We will make it firstly from coal.” I turned to Mr Worthington. “That’s a fossil fuel you know!” The thunder continued to rumble. Mrs Abernathy whimpered. “It’s something you get from under the ground. Then we will make more electricity from the sun and the wind and even the sea.” Mr Kenwood grunted. “Soon electricity will light up this house, but not in the way we have just seen. You will walk into a dark room and by the door will be a switch. You flick the switch to light up the room. It will be like daylight in the darkness.” I looked at all three of them in turn. They were all in a state of disbelief. Suddenly I felt good. I felt that I had some control back.
“Silence silence, you will anger God himself.” Mrs Abernathy’s tone was shaking and fearful. A loud clap of thunder exploded close by. She shrieked. As the rumble faded, the rain burst into a torrent. Outside, the stone began to glisten with its welcome moisture.
“Do not make Him angry,” echoed Mr Kenwood. I knew he was rattled. I could hardly contain myself. I was doing my best not to come out with a load of random nonsense. If I wanted to scare these people I had to keep some kind of order.
“Electricity will be passed around the country by pylons. They are tall towers of steel bearing massive cables of pure power.” I remembered that description from a poem I’d read. Mr Worthington’s stony face was turning a grey to match his expression. “But!” I held my finger up and checked they were still listening. “We don’t just have electricity.” Kenwood looked ready to explode. “Where I come from, we go round in cars. Cars are carriages without the horses. We don’t need horses. Horses are for racing or jumping over fences or just riding for fun. ”
“Cars have engines. They use petrol. We get that from another fossil fuel. It’s called oil. This Fossil fuel also comes from under the ground or even at the bottom of the sea. We have oil platforms which have long legs to stand on the sea bed. And cars go fast. Faster than any horse. Everyone will have a car.”
“Have a care,” warned Mr Worthington. “You speak the words of sorcerers.” His threat did little to deter me:
“But trains can go faster. They can run of steam, diesel or electricity. Trains are like lots of big cars all joined together. They go on rails. We have a train that goes through a tunnel all the way to France. Soon there will be trains travelling underneath London itself. And you will be able to get on a train and go anywhere in the country.” Outside the rain lashed down onto the windows while the lightning flashed in fits and starts. It was a noisy evening.
“Stop! You must be silent. These are the devil’s words.” Mrs Abernathy was now sounding terrified. “We’ll all be cursed, we’ll all be doomed!” The next bolt brought a genuine scream from the cowering woman. I was delighted. I had the power and I was going to use it:
“Oh we don’t just have a train to go France. We have planes that fly in the sky.” As I paused to catch my breath the following burst of thunder was the loudest yet. I noticed Mr Worthington begin to sink his head into his hands. He began squeaking frantically like a cornered mouse. I was impressed with the impact I was having.
“They can get to the other side of the world in just one day.” Mr Kenwood stared back at me. His redness was now off the scale. At that point I was confident that I could both outwit and outrun him.
“In everybody’s living room there’s a television. A flat box with moving pictures. You can see what goes on in any country of the world.” A gust of wind threw a flurry of rattling raindrops against the windows. “Then we’ve got other little boxes called phones. If you’ve got a phone you can put in a code and speak to anyone wherever they are.”
“You are the devil’s child, the devil’s child.” Mrs Abernathy was now hysterical. “The ground beneath us will open, we’ll all go down.” Mr Worthington’s face was no longer visible. I kept a close watch on Mr Kenwood out of the corner of my eye. His horsewhip was at the far end of the table. If he wanted it, he had to step towards it. That would be the signal to run. Up to now he had remained rooted to the spot. But I wanted more revenge. I really wanted to spook them.
“Do you see the moon at night?” I gave a sort of evil laugh-it may have been a bit comical but it was genuine. “I know men have walked upon that moon.” The thunder, lighting, rain and wind were now roaring freely outside. “Men went in a rocket through space and landed on that moon. It was even on the television.” The chaos outside was now happening inside. Mrs Abernathy and Mr Worthington were both playing out individual performances of screaming blind panic. As for Kenwood, I knew I was playing it close. I knew he was ready to explode. I knew that what I said next would set him off:
“And I know the earth goes round the sun and there are other planets that do the same. The sun is just one star. And if you were to travel to one of them you would die of old age before you got anywhere near them. In fact there are millions of stars in the solar system, silently gazing, watching over-” Kenwood made his move. Like the storm, he was raging:
“This beast will desist. For I shall kill this beast, I will beat it out of your soul until it screams for mercy.” He reached for his horsewhip. I shot through the door. Now I really felt the power. I wanted to tease Mr Kenwood. I wanted him to try and catch me. I would let him think that he could catch me. Then I wanted to stand and laugh as he keeled over in exhaustion. After putting up with all the humiliation and cruelty of this hateful stinking man, this was the bit I was looking forward to.
One of the first alcohol free beers on the market was called Barbican. It looked like a beer but it was a substitute.
If you’re driving but want to enjoy a safe beer like drink it’s fine. The idea of drinking with impunity is a fantasy we can only dream of. Two days before the Christmas of 1989, my GP ordered me to stop drinking. I had been suffering with the early symptoms of MS but even though I knew what it was, I was desperate for a quick fix. The optimist in me gave me hope. I told myself:
“The doctor is right. I’ve been drinking too much and I’m stressed about my PGCE course.”
The course meant everything to me. I wanted to teach. I’d wanted to teach since the age of fifteen. As a result my Christmas and New Year was dry. And I was the most popular person in the world.
I was invited to every night out and every party, In fact I partied hard and sober. To party sober is a unique experience. I am grateful for the experience but I’m never doing it again.
The Barbican I know now is the arts complex in the city of London. A masterpiece of sixties design, it sits in the famous old city oozing a sparkling foam of aesthetic elegance offering a haven of music, cinema and theatre. The layout is complex. A narrow service road cuts through its heart.
The car parks appear misshapen and disorderly. We’re used to rectangular levels of cold grey concrete. Strangely enough, this tangled web of developed and adapted design has an air of revered mystery. It’s the lack of regular shape. Even the bar and social areas outside the concert hall appear to be tagged on as afterthoughts.
Behind the old Gladys Street terrace in Goodison Park, the catering area appears as a small appendage hanging on to the side of a large old stadium. I know that place well.
At half time we would queue for a cup of weak tea and a discussion of the first half. Yet above us, bats flew frantically between the eaves. No-one seemed to notice. Evertonian bats? Priceless.
Well outside the Barbican concert hall I am reminded of my beloved Goodison. There were no bats at the Barbican; I checked. But there was a similar sense of anticipation.
The anticipation of a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra is thrilling.
Unlike football, there is no chance of losing. We were going to hear two Mozart violin concertos. Number one was “like a summer’s day”, to quote my good friend Steve. Number four was totally exquisite. Both concertos used a chamber orchestra with the upper strings standing in true eighteenth century style. The soloist and director, Nikolaj Znaider was skilled and charming. He smiled through his performance. I can recommend Mozart’s Violin Concerto number four.
Mozart is not light music, it is not background music and it is not just relaxing. It’s thrilling but touched with sadness and pathos. Mozart had a wretched life.
Getting to the Barbican has its issues however. Basically if you live near Tunbridge Wells, you would like everything to be close to Charing Cross station. But the Barbican is in the city.
On the map it is tantalisingly close to the main arteries, offering a expedient route to our destination. London traffic however, is more than willing to put a sting in the tail of any well planned excursion. Nevertheless we arrived.
I’m on their disabled access register so we were able to find the appropriate car park and glide elegantly into our reserved parking place. We wriggled through the confusing warren of walkways and lifts to emerge outside our allocated door. The bar was pleasant, the whisky was pleasant and the company was more than pleasant.
The second half of the concert promised a real treat. Tchaikovsky’s fourth is a highly charged cannonball of electrified emotion.
He hates, he loves and he hopes. If you lock in to his rich blanket of of turbulent torment, you will become wrapped in a world of a man haunted by his own being. This long drawn-out statement of metaphysical angst will drag you screaming through a panoply of emotions. It is so sumptuous and engaging, you will feel trapped by the colossus of its beauty.
By the way; I like this symphony. I have memories of its previous performances. Tonight’s was no exception. The third movement was the man of the match. The frantic pizzicato was the harbinger of a demented finale. At the end, I bellowed my feelings of joy. I can’t help myself. It was the climax of a thoroughly pleasant evening with good friends. I am lucky. All those years; listening to , performing and studying music have given me such insight. And I appreciate the generosity of friends. Thank-you for reading.
Whatever you may think of long car journeys, they are always memorable. Disability may have ended my days behind the wheel but in my mind I am still a driver. In the passenger seat I think all the things a driver would do. I can’t look out of the window and watch the hedgerows fly past. I can’t read. I certainly cannot sleep. I’ve only ever slept twice in a car. The first time was after being picked up at Gatwick and driven back to Wallasey. I purposefully curled up on the back seat and woke up by Ellesmere Port. I think the long flight from Australia may have been a key factor there. The second time left me crawling with guilt. I’d skived off school to go and watch the second replay of Everton and Liverpool in the FA Cup. It was a night match and I was in London.
The irony of a teacher skiving off still tickles me. My old mate Doug drove us. That was fine. I chatted to him and our other London exile Mike all the way through a busy brutal journey. But coming back, poor old Doug drove whilst I just crashed in the passenger seat. This time I woke up on the North Circular Road. Some of my pupils claimed they saw me in the crowd on Match of the Day. At least three other members of staff had slipped away to watch their own team in a replay that evening. I felt less guilty.
I now come to another epic from Spain to England. This was business and not pleasure. My friend Steve owned a Chrysler dealership. Chrysler were trying to get a foot hold in the British market. The Cherokee and Wrangler jeeps had moderate success in the early years. Then they were bringing out an MPV in the spring of 1997. The Voyager was already available in Europe so Steve thought he’d steal a march on his rivals and get one from Spain between the Christmas and new year of 1996.
Such ideas may be conceived in the cold light of day but the spirit of the adventure flows as free as the ale when discussed in the warm snug of The Huntsman. We were going to fly to Bilbao, stay overnight in a friend’s in-laws in San Sebastian and cruise majestically back in the shining armour of the new knight on the block.
I must say, the taxi ride from Bilbao to San Sebastian was a masterpiece of Spanish bravado. “Did that man want to crash?” It was an hour and fifteen minutes of grip. I gripped the upholstery and my mind was gripped on the damp road ahead as it flew past with inflections of splash. I suppose aquaplaning saves on the tyres.
The following day we set of all safely strapped into our leather armchairs and shot through the Spanish gloom. By the way, San Sebastian has brilliant tapas. We both knew that French roads were expensive but brilliant. We were following my 1994 route so it seemed plain sailing. And it was up to a point. Going up through southern France the turbulence of the mild Spanish wind had give way to the sharp static frost we associate with the northern hemisphere.
We were mildly content. We were thinking of a late ferry and back home to bed in the wee small hours; job done, brand new Voyager on the forecourt by the following Monday. It was bound to attract interest. Good common business sense.
Then it happened. By mid afternoon the country was enshrouded in a familiar blanket of virgin snow. The outside temperature read minus seven. Like some shallow fop I began to fear for the vineyards. But up ahead the sign said FERME! The motorway was closed. Just south of Poitiers we had to transfer to the N road. That’s like our A road. We looked ahead as the road swept before us into the twinkling late afternoon lights of this famous old town. But the lights did not belong to the town. The lights were brake lights.
In my blogs, I never like to use basic expletives but there is no other way I can express our sentiment: “Oh shit.” For an hour nothing moved. In desperation, Steve sitting crestfallen in the driver’s seat phoned back to England to get any news about the traffic in France. But this was 1996. Internet? No, there was Ceefax. Ceefax was great for the latest football scores but for traffic news in mid provincial France? “Tu plaisantes.” What self respecting Englishman would be driving through France whilst the rest of the nation was taking a much needed deep breath between the excesses of Christmas and New Year?
One late evening after too much whisky, we fantasised and romanticised about our heroic expedition through the immaculate Gallic highways. There was a wizened old little man gripping the back of our necks. It’s part of the “slightly drunk” package. Well that little man was standing directly before us laughing until the bell on his jester’s hat began to send an unbearable piercing needle of mocking laughter into our ears. There are untoward noises and there are untoward noises. At the purgatory end may be the sound of an air chisel, the drone of a hoover, nails down a blackboard, Barry Manilow, a happy Liverpool fan or violin practice. (Don’t knock it, they have to start somewhere.) But this little man went beyond that. He was visually gross and constantly beat our ears with the silent sound of static engines.
This stirred us into action. I looked at the map. I can do maps. Just ahead of this moribund snake of doomed steel and plastic was a D road. Steve risked a slip into the abyss of a roadside ditch to gain access. We were off. I was glued to the map. Take me home, country roads.
Oh no, this is another “oh shit” moment. It’s far worse than the plight I am currently relating. I have just inserted that dreadful song into my head. It will grace me with its tortuous presence for the next two days at least. If I crack on It may leave my ears alone for a bit.
Now you know the frustration of a never ending traffic jam and the sudden cathartic release of an open road results in a giddy sense of freedom and a rather heavy right foot. But this is less appropriate on an untreated country lane when it’s minus seven. That lovely old cheesy tune, the Skaters’ Waltz came into my head but the first violins were drunk and a semitone flat. There we were. skating about in unfamiliar land in a brand new Voyager. Fortunately Steve’s driving is impressive. He could handle a slide or two. But I was not going to say “did you feel it go” every time the rear end shifted a bit. Now the aim was to get north of Poitiers an back onto the motorway.
The route was involved but there were no wrong turnings. But the route was long. It must have taken over six hours. At one stage in mid evening we were parked outside a bar in the middle of nowhere. I said it: “I wonder if they do accommodation?” It was a fleeting thought but we’d made steady progress. We had to press on. We did find the motorway just before midnight. Was it time to sleep? No!
It was now a difficult journey through the tedium of the French auto routes in deteriorating conditions. We spoke of our hopes for the new year and of our hilarious past. We reminisced about university and did impersonations of our tutors and fellow students.
Talking of untoward noises; there was a student called Derek. He was a big hearted bloke but if he was in the room and you were listening to rock or pop, he would sing along, quite unabashed by his comedic Barrow-in-Furness accent. It was always :
“Derek’s coming. let’s play Shostakovitch”
“But I don’t like Shostakovitch.”
“Do you want him to sing?”
After a long continental drive, any form of replenishment on the Channel ferry is both deserved and welcome. People make bucket lists which may include para-gliding, bungee jumping or a trip to the great wall of China. But I recommend a P and O breakfast after a mega trip. Blighty is just minutes away whilst you chew away at the cardboard bacon, rubber eggs, sawdust sausages and lukewarm beans. There is nothing better.
Dover brought daylight to a frozen England. It was my turn to drive this elegant left-sided masterpiece of nineties American tack. The last leg of our journey was quiet and smooth; apart from those traffic calming things just before Tonbridge. I was slack and hit the kerb. We had to change a tyre. The frustration was apparent. It was snorting from our exhausted nostrils.
“Where’s the spare tyre?”
“Check the manual.”
“It’s in bloody Spanish.” Snort. I found it and we changed it. My only worry was the pub landlord. It was eight thirty in the morning and we were changing a tyre in his car park. Would he emerge red faced and cross in an ill fitting dressing gown not designed to accommodate his corpulent frame? Would he have this semi-mocking tone as he explained the basics of tyre maintenance or how he had personally campaigned for those traffic calming measures? Or would he just be helpful and offer us a cup of tea?
He didn’t show. Within an hour my head was on the pillow. Home is a sweet place. The previous summer, Steve and I were also sat on a cross channel ferry after a long but smooth journey from the Cote D’azure. “That was mega,” he commented. “We’re never doing that again.” But we did. Experience is the best form of education. Thank-you for reading.
Long journeys take a long time. Even at a rip roaring six hundred miles per hour, flying takes time. And when on a fast bicycle with a fit and able rider (yes, I was that rider), getting from Birkenhead to Chester took its time. Coming from Wallasey and living in East Sussex, I am an experienced victim of the corresponding car journey. I can give a succinct but emotional description of trip up north: A21; hated yet loved; M25 poor overworked sausage, it’s just as well I feel sorry for you. I’ve come to know you well from a static point of view. M1; the old sage. M6; always the bridesmaid to the M1. Works hard. Abused in the West Midlands. M56; intitial joy turns to resentment of its secret little handshake with the M53. M53; small town bully. The Dock Road; iconic yet ironic.
Hint; it’s best not to dwell too much on these assertions as one may be prone to spontaneous human self-inflicted road rage.
Can you imagine lines of stationery driver piling out of their cars outside the RAC control centre on the M6 to vent their anger on the poor suffering asphalt? Branches and sticks would be grabbed from the hard shoulder to beat the rutted surface below their feet. Someone could create a west end show based on the concept. Title? “Dried Up River Dance”?
There are some long car journeys in particular which stand out. One took me from Spain to England. It was in the Summer of 1994. The second half of the last term of school had been hot. I spent between one and a half hours and two hours every week day getting home from work. Through the streets of South East London, I’d crawl among the other hapless commuters. I had my little points of reference. The most volatile was Ladywell. Some days I would sail through.
But when I saw the cars stacked up before I could see that poxy little roundabout, my heart would sink. The heat just made things worse; I couldn’t afford air conditioning. In short it was a nightmare. This meant that driving my car on an empty road was a pleasure. To be able to open up and trundle along without having to stop at every cough and sneeze brought a smile to my face.
I liked my car; a five year old diesel Fiesta. I liked to drive it. So when the Summer holidays came along, I’d arranged to meet friends in Malaga and then La Linea (By Gibraltar.) It was one of those blow-out holidays. We’d all worked hard and needed to relax. There were long sunny afternoons languishing by the tent sipping cool Spanish lager before strolling down to the bars and restaurants of Torreleminos.
We moved further south ending up in Tariffa. At the end of our holiday we sat in the morning sun on the pavement cafe outside the bus stop to Malaga.
I left everyone waiting for the bus to the airport to the smug banter of those who were anticipating a smooth journey home. They were going to get home before me of course. There I was, gurgling off in my little diesel wondering how long it would take me. Well I had enough time to think. So I thought: “Well their flights are about two AM, two and a half hours, leaving Gatwick at about six and getting back to London two or three hours later.” yes, they will be home before me.” Then I thought again. “Their flight over was delayed. Was it industrial action by French air traffic controllers?” Well the motivation was there. Just as I looked left to see the inviting blue sea beyond the vibrant colours that made up Cadiz, I knew I could do it. The foot went down; it was going to be a none stop one thousand four hundred and sixty-six miles of motoring. Deep breaths. The journey across Spain, going diagonally towards San Sebastian was long and dull. The landscape was barren.
The road was superb; beautifully maintained and empty. There were long climbs and sweeping descents through dusty sterile plains. I was making good time. In the early evening, I stopped to fill up with fuel and food. On the radio was the early part of the Woodstock reunion festival. I had no cassette player so it was a reasonable source of music. It was only a brief stop for a typical garage sandwich. They are the same all over the world. It was dull like my surroundings.
On one climb I glanced in the mirror to see a scampering mass of black smoke. I assumed it was a passing smelly old HGV. I was wrong. It was me. Going through Almeria over two weeks previous by trusty little warrior had passed the hundred thousand mark. It was showing its age.
Then coming down from one peak I cantered round a sweeping bend to see a crashed MPV; one of the original Toyota Space Wagons. It was on its side, wounded like a dying colossus while three or four of its passengers sat stunned around it, silently thinking through the last rites for their old faithful. In an instant lives had been ruined. It’s that quick. The emergency services were there. There was no need for me to stop and gesture sympathetically.
At midnight I crossed into France. I was unshaven and a little dishevelled. My car looked a mess. I had the back seat down to accommodate all my friends’ tents and equipment.
Coutumes françaises pleines de pénis
A French customs man addressed me with a mixture of boredom, arrogance and contempt. Your average middle aged French official does not like stubble. The hatchback was opened and the sniffer dog stuck its nose into every nook and cranny. It seemed very keen on the rucksack I’d used for food. The handler’s eyes lit up. But he was disappointed.
“Pour manger?” he asked pointing to the bag. There was no way I was going to say “Ouis.” I looked confused. I shrugged my shoulders. They left and I was off. France awaited.
The motorways of France are expensive and empty. I went into some sort of concentrated zone of driving concentration. There was nothing to see. Previously that year I’d read about modern day highway men in France forcing tourists off the road and robbing them blind. This thought helped keep me awake and alert.
It was only when dawn was breaking near Paris did I feel the need for a power nap. I parked up in a service station and snoozled away. It was an hour before I shook myself into some sort of conscious state and carried on. I was thirty-eight years old. Despite being diagnosed with MS earlier in the year, I still had boundless energy.
As I was thinking about the delights of the Parisian peripherique, a little old Renault ahead of me clipped a roadworks sign and bounced through several somersaults in front of me. I pulled over behind this inverted old gem of French economy and ergonomics. Fortunately two other cars were already in attendance. A shocked terrified arm-flapping mademoiselle wriggled through the front window. I nipped out onto the road to drag the sign back to the hard shoulder. That was my job done. The poor girl was white. Did she actually say “Ooh la la”?
At eight-thirty on a Sunday morning the peripherique was wild; not a place for the half asleep.
But I was wide awake. I had the eyes of a child on Christmas eve. The thought of getting home was too exciting.
Once I was past Paris it was the final two hundred mile dash to Calais. It was a race track. No more peages. No more speeding fines. Five miles outside Calais, some arrogant French car was flashing at me to move over. The car was flash and ostentatious. “So what?” I stood at the quayside looking across to Blighty.
It was eleven thirty. The warm sun flashed a warming glow across the Channel. I breathed in the fresh ozone sea air.
Speeding along the M20, the car that was flashing me by Calais was dithering. I flashed him and flashed him and flashed him and….well it had been a long journey.
The rest was straightforward; apart from that double decker holding me up on the road from Maidstone to Tonbridge. But I was back in The Huntsman at Eridge by half-past two.
There was a cool pint of King and Barnes Festive Ale in front of me. After three weeks of cold continental lager it was nectar. Later that afternoon I spoke to all the answerphones of my friends. They weren’t back. At two o”clock on the Monday afternoon, I awoke to find a symphony of abuse on my own answerphone.
If you’ve ever listened to this song by The Doors you might well want to nod quietly. It’s about feeling isolated. Or is it about being off your head on some mind altering substance in a crowded place? You never know with The Doors. It’s like The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine; an idea inspired by something or other. (See also Octopus’ Garden.) But I like the sentiment. People are strange.
Some years ago, I had a propensity for sitting on a bench in supermarket car parks.
I would watch the way people behaved. When you’re in a place like that, your main concern is to get the shopping in the car and get back home. Well that’s what you may think. I find them cold unforgiving places which begs the question; what the hell was I doing there?
I loved the Captain Mannering types. No sooner has family car been parked immaculately in the space the little man has burst out of his chariot and is directing one of his retinue to requisition a trolley. His stubby fat fingers gesture towards the trolley station. He will tut at the lackadaisical way the trolleys have been left sprawled across the walkway. He would push the trolley of course.
One very hot day at Waitrose on the Isle of Wight, I saw such a family. No sooner had they alighted their air-conditioned four by four, the little dictator was instructing his wife and three children to put their fleeces on. “You know it’s cold in the chiller sections,” espoused our good captain. I watched incredulously as they filtered through the automatic doors. His stumpy fingers were still wiggling as he turned round to demonstrate his wisdom to the short sleeved people behind him, probably desperate for a cold draught of relief from the heat of the day. I’m sure his head wiggled as well. The pause at the great door was measured and dramatic, before he jumped into action and bounded off to some far flung corner of the bakery.
As I wandered around the place with my mate Pete and his lovely daughter Ffion, I would catch sight of this division of the home guard. Is it so important to be in control? I’m sure he had a map of the supermarket and a schedule of his route and what they were going to buy.
Can you imagine the Saturday morning in their house? Armed with clipboard and pen, he would check off the children as they came down the stairs.
There would be a firm word for Sebastian who was still upstairs groaning a teenage lament about the outrageous hour for a Saturday parade. There would be a lecture as he clumped down the stairs offering little more than a grunt to his senior officer.
The cupboards would be inspected. There would be questions about sell-by dates. These little numbers were sacrosanct; never to be questioned. Mum would quietly sigh. Her own family were never well off. They worked on the sniff it and see basis.
She mentioned it once; when they were first seeing each other. But she did not want another controlled rant about E-coli and salmonella. The original outburst lasted three days, with occasional reprises in the ensuing seventeen years. So the sigh was silent.
By some freak of timing, they were getting back into the car at the same time as us. Firstly load the shopping then load the family. There was a special place for their fleeces. Mannering however, became a little red faced when Sebastian climbed onto the back sat still adorned with his green Nike top.
He wanted to take it off in the car. “No, come outside and do it, I’m not having fleece sprawled over the back seat.” Once more, the arm was outstretched with forefinger bobbing up and down to the desired fleece repository. I looked at Peter. There was no need for words.
I like to be in control. But’s that’s because I have extra considerations. If I’m going anywhere, I look at a map to see which places the train or car may pass through. I love having knowledge of my surroundings and beyond.
I spent twenty two years in charge of a junior class. I was a guide, sometimes an assertive guide but never a dictator.
Now let me talk about BOTTOMS. When I was much younger my mate Martin and I came up with a classification for the female posterior. I won’t bore you with it now for fear of recrimination from the equal opportunities thought police. (But we were young lads.)
But this is a different type of bottom This is an acronym for people who “Bang On That Their Opinion Matters. That is, the type of person who maintains a level of self perceived importance. So many comedians never miss a chance to lampoon themselves or their lifestyle. As well as being hilarious, it breaks down all sorts ore conceived ideas about people types. Imagine our Isle of Wight captain laughing at himself?
In my teaching days, we changed our school day in order to finish at 15.10 in line with the rest of the town. There was an open meeting about it. The head was determined to show a unified front in favour of said proposal. So all the staff went along.
The gates of Hell had opened to unleash the rage of a thousand BOTTOMS or from my point of view, bottoms. All those long festering grievances were exploding in one continuous tirade of self important vitriol.
There was one father. I always got on well with him. He was determined that his family would have time together to learn life skills and values. I agreed with him but when he implied that the school (and he used its full title accompanied by the statutory pointed finger) had done little for his children, I piped up with one of those polite but firm reminders of what his family had actually achieved with the help of the school and his extension of after school child care by twenty minutes was of little consequence.
“But I’m paying for an extra hour,” squeaked the BOTTOM. I restrained from my cut your cloth and count your blessings mantra.
Let us return to the supermarket. It is a place of shock and awe. For those children I used to teach who expressed their hatred of being dragged round a crowded Sainsbury’s (other outlets are available) on a Saturday morning, I would encourage silly games. “You and your sister must decide which customer is the spy. And you need to justify it.”
This got some great writing on the Monday.
But what abut the names? I know I’m on thin ice here so I’ll just mention something I overheard in the Waitrose car park in Lewes: